ART OF THE CUT with the editors of “The Last Dance”

This post is by Steve Hullfish from ProVideo Coalition

Click here to view on the original site: Original Post

Today, I’m talking with the editors of ESPN Films documentary series The Last Dance. Joining me are Chad Beck, ACE, Ben Sozanski, ACE, Abhay Sofsky, and Devin Concannon.

Chad Beck has edited previous documentaries including Rest In Power: The Trayvon Martin Story, Inside Job, Page One: Inside the New York Times, and The First Monday in May.

Devin Concannon has edited Fyre Fraud, and also edited on Rest In Power: The Trayvon Martin Story.

Abhay Sofsky has previously edited Hardly Working, Beware of Mister Baker, Level Red, and Poker Night.

Ben Sozanski has edited Rolling Stone: Stories from the Edge,

Avid timeline Episode 1 - The Last Dance
Avid project-window screenshot for "The Last Dance"
Art of the Cut book cover

Is Plastic, This Is Don, and O.J.: Made in America. I’ve previously interviewed Maya Mumma on Art of the Cut for editing OJ: Made in America.

The Last Dance is a 10-part documentary series about Michael Jordan and the Bulls that has been running 2 episodes per night on ESPN for the last five weeks.

This interview is available as a podcast.

(This interview was transcribed with SpeedScriber. Thanks to Martin Baker at Digital Heaven)

HULLFISH: The structure seems very non-linear. We don’t start with Jordan’s childhood and progress till present day. How was structure determined? Was it scripted?

BECK: It was unscripted. Completely unscripted. When I started, I just tackled an episode. There was kind of a rough structure that (director) Jason Hehir had come up with.

It’s interesting that you say it’s not chronological — and you’re right in a lot of ways — the Jordan backstory isn’t exactly chronological but there was this idea that in order for us to make the show work — and the show presumably was going to be driven by the last dance season — we also had to simultaneously tell a parallel chronological story of the history of the Bulls, basically starting with Jordan. So even though the final product doesn’t seem chronological, it kind of roughly is in terms of these two parallel stories and story arcs.

One is the journey of that final season and one is the journey of the Bulls and trying to provide the audience with the backstories of these characters as they entered the scene. That’s why Jordan comes first and then Pippen comes and then Phil and Rodman come in sort of in a roughly chronological sense and then it came down to how are we gonna structure these individual episodes and come to time and be able to tell the backstories in a way that kind of motivates the sport? So it’s not just a sports-driven documentary but a narrative documentary that happens to be about sports — which I think is kind of a goal we all had — to make it as interesting as possible for a general audience.

And that’s when structural tweaks were made necessary by the format. It’s a series that has to come to time because it’s going to air on ESPN and ABC, not just Netflix. There was a complexity involved with that rather than just making it like The Godfather, where it can be three and a half hours and who cares.

Avid timeline Episode 1 - The Last Dance
screenshot of the Avid timeline Episode 1 – The Last Dance. All images can be seen in full quality (4918×2696 here) by right-clicking the image and opening in a new browser and then zooming in.

HULLFISH: That would have been fine with me.

BECK: Us too! it’s a purer way of doing it, but we had to like wrangle those two worlds and that affected the structure.

HULLFISH: When you were cutting it, did you know it was going to air in two-episode chunks, and did that affect anything?

BECK: We thought it was gonna be roughly a 50 minute hour. The fact that it’s airing two at a time was decided very late in the process. It wasn’t something that drove the edit. It drove the schedule, ultimately, but not the edit.

SOZANSKI: I think there was a conversation late in the process about there being two-episode arcs. There was a discussion with Jason about certain things where there’s like two episodes that kind of are paired.

BECK: Three and four are definitely paired.

SOZANSKI: That might not come across super clearly, but there was a little bit of the idea with a couple of the paired episodes.

HULLFISH: Structure is tough. You guys are dealing with not just one championship season but several plus multiple backstories. So one minute Dennis Rodman is one of the hated “bad boys of Detroit” and a minute later he might be this valued Bulls team member and then back with Detroit in someone else’s story.

Why were those jumps necessary? And how did you deal with them?

BECK: That was an episode Abhay worked heavily on, but ultimately he had moved on to another episode and I was wrangling that with Jason and (producer) Jake Rogal a lot.

That was maybe one of the trickiest transitions and trickiest episodes to structure because we wanted to set up Rodman’s backstory as a Piston. He also happened to be part of the Bulls backstory in a really significant way. He was one of their chief rivals — which was so interesting. You had to go back to the Last Dance season and sort of have him be present there and have to explain that. So that was a tricky transition.

There were a couple of options as to how to do it but we had to start in 98 then go back to the 70s all the way up to the late 80s then jump from the late 80s to 92 and then 95 and then 98. You sort of have to ask the audience to go along with you on that ride a little bit.

Dennis Rodman being interviewed for “The Last Dance.” credit: Jason Hehir.

A lot of that was also determined by the Phil Jackson arc because we also — in episode three — had to establish Phil Jackson’s arc. So episodes 3 and 4 are really interrelated in a lot of ways. But that was definitely a really hard episode to structure — probably the hardest I think to structure out of all the episodes, and one in which we went back and forth. We had so many different fine-cut versions of that episode that all had something special and we ended up deciding on that particular structure.

HULLFISH: It did help if you paid attention to the motion graphics. There were these nice animated timelines that swept the story kind of either forward or backward.

BECK: Yeah that’s good to hear. We were so close to it. I’m psyched that people found them useful.

SOZANSKI: There were discussions about not having them at certain points. So it is nice to hear that they are a welcomed inclusion.

HULLFISH: The handoff between stories and backstories was really done elegantly and if you weren’t really paying attention to the handoffs you’d be kind of watching a game and wondering why Dennis Rodman is pushing Pippen around.

SOZANSKI: It’s not just Rodman. That’s a funny thing about sports. Horace Grant, Charles Oakley to some degree — all these people were on the Bulls and then playing against them or vice versa, so there’s that’s something that comes up throughout the whole series to a lesser degree, but there’s all sorts of time-travel conundrums you get into.

BECK: We had to move Oakley around a lot. Oakley was in episode three and then I think he ended up in two. He was in two and then he was three and he was back to two and I think right now he lives in two.

HULLFISH: I want to stick with this idea about the handoff between one story beat or idea and another. The interview bites often took us off on to these B stories.

CONCANNON: One thing that worked out great was that Dennis was sort of our third character and by the third episode we’re in a point in time where that’s the aspect of the Bulls history we want to focus on — which was the Bad Boys as a nemesis. And then it also worked out perfectly that Phil Jackson kind of came to the rescue for the team right after they lost to the Bad Boys a few times and that let us focus on Phil Jackson for episode 4.

Then the beginning of episode 5 Jordan walks out with the original Air Jordans. We get to do the whole Nike thing and his rise as a global superstar which is kind of joined to the Nike thing and all of his sponsorships.

A lot of that worked out really well and some of it we had to shuffle things around and time them out so that they worked out well,

Michael Jordan being interviewed by director Jason Hehir for “The Last Dance”

BECK: Whenever we were gonna go into a character’s backstory we tried to hand off to that in an interesting way so you see something that makes you really curious and trying to create that emotional connection so that when you go to that back story you want to go there.

So we established Pippen at the top of Episode 2 by saying he’s one of the greatest players ever, and Jordan’s right hand, but he has this conflict with management and you amp up the emotion and the tension there and then when you go to his backstory you kind of want to live there and we tried to do the same thing with Rodman and with Phil. I think we did a good job with Phil doing that too.

When we went to the Phil backstory there were earlier edits where it felt a little bit dry to go into a Phil back story, but I feel like the way that we ultimately synthesized it — it comes off of this beautiful moment with Dennis and he has his arm around Dennis in the locker room and it makes it so you want to learn more about that guy.

So we were trying to tee everything up.

HULLFISH: Does anyone have a nice example of one of these handoffs that they cut?

BECK: With Dennis Rodman, I know that when we cut to Rodman we sort of had established already — right at the top of the episode, in that cold open — that he was a bit of a tormented figure. Kind of an antihero. That was established and then we went to the title sequence. We came out of the titles and established a lot of tension between him and Jordan.

Then Rodman rose to the occasion. I think there was some great call in that game that kind of threw to his backstory really nicely. It just set him up in a way that you wanted to go to that backstory.

CONCANNON: I don’t want to give any spoilers here but there’s a great one that works really well in Episode 9 that revolves around Steve Kerr. At the time that we’re kind of catching up to the Bulls history timeline, Steve Kerr in the 97 finals hits a really big shot. That buys us getting into Steve Kerr’s backstory and him dealing with Michael as a teammate. And that actually pays off also in the 98 timeline during the Eastern Conference Finals.

So those two things kind of coming together let us go into Steve Kerr’s history. Let’s figure out who this guy is as a person. How he relates to the team. Some of these things came up naturally and some of them were things that we had to shuffle around to make them come out that way.

BECK: We were hyper-aware of all these things. We were constantly going back and forth. We’d go into each other’s rooms and have conversations. It was this constant flow of ideas between us and Jason and the producers.

Michael Jordan being interviewed by director, Jason Hehir for “The Last Dance”

Everything was thought through very carefully and all these little moments and how they transition. They weren’t haphazard in any way. We tried to make every single moment lead into the next moment. Also the fact that it’s a series — you have to think about how that comes back later and planting a seed in this episode which can continue in later episodes.

HULLFISH: There’s a really wonderfully edited sequence of Scottie, Rodman, Jordan, and Phil watching interviews about Rodman’s crazy Las Vegas vacation. Can you tell me about assembling that?

CONCANNON: Jason actually, the director, had put something together of that before we joined the project. All of us kind of worked on it at one point or another to get it to its final form, but Jason conceived of that — 85 percent of what it is now — before we got on board.

BECK: Jason’s an editor by the way. He likes being in there and he likes cutting and he was a real force behind the music — the hip hop montages and driving force in terms of the way that music is cut. A lot of that is him.

He’s a director and editor, so he was a big part of the edit in terms of actually constructing scenes and some of the coolest stuff.

HULLFISH: I’m assuming you guys were cutting in Avid.

SOZANSKI: Yeah. Avid.

HULLFISH: And a gigantic NEXIS with about a billion hours of storage?

SOZANSKI: Yeah. I don’t know if the technical aspect is interesting about when we had to leave the post facility? We had to move all of that offline. It took a long time to get it out of the facility and home because the storage was so massive.

HULLFISH: I’d love to hear about the part of the editing that you guys had to do at home while on COVID lockdown in New York City!

Charles Barkley interviewed for “The Last Dance.” credit: Jason Hehir.

BECK: I had already moved the entire project before we actually left. So I had everything on a raid array in my apartment, because we partially were anticipating this was going to happen. It was like starting to become clear that this could happen and we couldn’t jeopardize finishing the project.

Matt Maxson who is our producer — who’s super tech-savvy — he had been providing me with media and we’d already started moving stuff remotely. So when we were pushed out it took about a week for everybody to have the media. Basically I copied terabytes of media onto these OWC Black Thunderbay drives — a four-drive RAID — and we started distributing them.

Ben lives a block from me, so he came over. We were wearing masks and distantly handed them off. And then Matt rode his bike to you.

SOZANSKI: I was giving him drives back and wiping them down with alcohol swabs and everything. I think it was about 33 TB altogether.

CONCANNON: Abhay came down and I’d sprayed down that drive with alcohol — it was soaked in alcohol — and he had his wife and baby in the car. It was wild that this is how we finished it. But we did it.

HULLFISH: So the media was local but that’s a massive amount of media. DNxHD36?

CONCANNON: Yep. DNxHD36 and we would send each other sequences via email and then we’d reconnect. We were all working on separate episodes. We all have Macs and we were all just cutting off these Thunderbay drives and it was pretty good. We were able to do it.

SOZANSKI: It was much smoother than I expected it to be. When I first heard that we were going to do this, I thought it wouldn’t work. All credit to Matt Maxson for coordinating everything. It was much more seamless than I thought it would be.

HULLFISH: When was your last day together physically in a post house?

CONCANNON: Friday, March 13th was the day that the quarantine kind of started, right? I think that was the last day any of us were in the office.

Former President Barack Obama interviewed for “The Last Dance” credit, Jason Hehir

BECK: I think I had left the week before. We were already being hyper-vigilant when we were in the post facility. I would spray down doorknobs and everything with alcohol and spray down people’s keyboards. And Jake Rogal (a producer) who I shared a room with, he and I were just Purelling our hands constantly. We were hyper hyper-sensitive about it.

There came a moment where it was Jason came into the office and said, “Anybody who doesn’t want to be here should not be here.” I think I left the next day because I had already had the system set up at home.

HULLFISH: That’s crazy. You mentioned you were working on separate episodes but you also talked about working on separate scenes. Did it start with scene work and then you got assigned episodes? How were you collaborating?

SOZANSKI: I actually came to the project much later than the other three guys, so I think my process with it was a little different than theirs. At first, I was working an episode, there was a structure for them but there wasn’t too much cut and then as there began to be rough cuts for everything then we were kind of shuffling scenes, which is really nice because I also think at some point you’ve been with a scene long enough and it’s really nice to have somebody else take a look and have a different view on it.

Part of the thing that’s really nice about working with other editors instead of by yourself is that it’s really great to have another perspective — even other than the director at times — to ask, “Is this working?” Or, “This is as far as I can push it.” “What else can be done with this? I’m kind of not seeing it anymore.”

I did some work on some of the later episodes and then we all kind of ended up on the last episode in the last final push up the mountain at the very end.

HULLFISH: Tell me about the schedule. When did this even start?

BECK: I was the first one on, of the four of us. I think it was Thanksgiving 2018. And then Devin started after me and Abhay started after Devin. We were on it for a while before Ben jumped on.

PORTLAND, OR – 1989: Michael Jordan #23 of the Chicago Bulls shoots against the Portland Trail Blazers during a game played circa 1989 at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 1989 NBAE (Photo by Brian Drake/NBAE via Getty Images)

SOZANSKI: October 2019, I think.

CONCANNON: In those early episodes we were definitely mostly working in scenes. It wasn’t: “OK. You do all of episode 2. You do all of episode 3.”

At a certain point it may just be the case that one editor or two editors can bring home episode 1 for this output — we have a rough cut coming up. You jump ahead to episode 2 or you jump ahead to episode 3.

Sometimes — which was great — they’d ask, “Does anything call to you?” I remember Chad really wanted to do the Bad Boys early on and so Chad kind of jumped ahead and was working on the Bad Boys in episode 3 for a while. In the beginning there was a lot more open time and it was more of “what do you want to do?” Let’s carry this storyline out. Let’s cut this scene and see where it fits into these episodes — if it fits into these episodes.

It was a lot less “crunch time” and a lot more “thinking out loud” a lot more collaborative group meetings and stuff like that.

HULLFISH: So there were several sections where the decision was made to use off-mic questions from the director. Can you discuss how it was determined to keep those in or what the choices were?

BECK: Jason wanted to use that stuff as sparingly as possible, but there were times where it was important to include. But he was trying to minimize that as much as possible.

The choice not to use voiceover was a great choice. I think it just makes the show a little bit more organic. We were able to use only the archival and the interviews as documentary evidence.

We use some text cards but that’s largely to reorient the audience, there wasn’t editorializing in those text cards. And I think that was a great choice. It makes it more difficult to construct a show like this but it also makes it a lot more organic and narratively-driven.

The choice to include the director’s voice was out of necessity. He really did not want his voice in there. Often we had to convince and he actually was pretty acutely aware of the reasoning behind why the show was working and wasn’t. And in those particular moments it was important to use his voice.

SOZANSKI: Sometimes a person not answering, or the look on their face when they’re asked a certain question, is as useful as a verbal answer, and you can’t really do that without including the question.

SEATTLE – JUNE 14: Dennis Rodman #91 of the Chicago Bulls talks with the media before playing the Seattle SuperSonics in Game Five of the 1996 NBA Finals at Key Arena on June 14, 1996 in Seattle, Washington. The Sonics won 89-78. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 1996 NBAE (Photo by Jeff Reinking/NBAE via Getty Images)

HULLFISH: There’s a story beat about Rodman and an episode with a gun and there’s a great use of a clip of him maybe posing for an NBA video clip where he’s just kind of sitting there blinking. And I love that unconventional use of that footage.

CONCANNON: I think Abhay was the first person to cut that and it was really an emotional scene.

SOFSKY: For Dennis, he’s so kind of all-over-the-place and sometimes it would work better when he’s talking just let it play even though he’s kind of scatterbrained and all over the place because — on top of getting the information across it gives you a taste of his character, that he is so out-there and weird and kind of off.

That shot was just a matter of skimming through all the archival. We had so much archival. It was just looking for something that captures the vibe of that scene. I think that was a shot that was like a promo. It just was a nice slow zoom into his face and it worked.

BECK: It was like a moment of desperation in his life and it sort of just popped off the screen.

HULLFISH: That’s why you have to watch everything, right? Moments that you can’t imagine would be useful come back to you — when you need them you discover a great use for them.

SOFSKY: We also had a great team. Our producers really helped us find stuff. So if there was a moment like that where you said, “We need something from Dennis.” We could go to them and say, “Can you help us find something that would help convey this idea of him looking lost?” Or “I need a shot of Dennis rebounding where he looks really intense.”

They had access to so much archival. They would just give us a bin with a bunch of options. We had a lot of help finding that kind of stuff we needed.

SOZANSKI: When I came on I was super impressed because they had access to everything the NBA ever shot. It was this crazy archive that they had where they could go on and basically interface with the NBA and anything that was shot basically for any game they have somewhere — all these slo-mo shots that people haven’t seen before. It’s just all this really cool trove of stuff.

DETROIT – 1989: Michael Jordan #23 of the Chicago Bulls drives to basket against the Detroit Pistons during the 1989 season NBA game in Detroit, Michigan. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory copyright notice: Copyright 1989 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

Like Abhay said, you just call something up and it’s there. I don’t know that I’ve ever worked on something where the options are that robust for what you can get.

BECK: We had a really great team. Our producers were just so supportive and passionate about the project. We had a pretty small team in the post house. Nina Krstic was amazing and Jake and Matt and Jill and Zach were so supportive. Super, super awesome team.

HULLFISH: Were you using PhraseFind or ScriptSync to find sound bites?

SOZANSKI: ScriptSync is super useful if you’re just looking for, “I remember someone saying X but I don’t remember who said it or at what point in the interview.” But late in the process, when you’re trying to really smooth out people’s verbiage and get a good audio edit, then it becomes totally integral.

I’ve tried to do that sort of thing without it — in Premiere or something — and it becomes so much more of a chore.

HULLFISH: Maybe you’re trying to Frankenbit something — where you’re trying to switch the inflection of a word?

SOZANSKI: Exactly. Yeah. It’s so helpful for that.

CONCANNON: There was a point that I had run full basketball games — recordings of the broadcast — through a transcription service, so that I could quickly edit a game and search for, “I need them talking about this one player” or “I need steals” or “I need rebounds.”

Run the whole game through the transcription service and then search through there and it’s timecoded and be able to find the commentators saying whatever I needed to tell the story of that particular game.

SOZANSKI: That’s super smart.

SOFSKY: They had also gone through all of that 1998 footage and put markers throughout the footage, so it would say, “Dennis Rodman dunk,” “Michael Jordan cool pass” so on top of the ScriptSync search we could also search for characters in the footage or a turnover or a steal which is really helpful.

HULLFISH: Running it through the transcription service, you were just looking to find the visual plays?

CONCANNON: Yeah, and also the audio bites from the commentators to play during the game. I don’t even remember what specific game that was for but if we were trying to show some person getting a lot of steals, I’d search the word “steal.” Here are three in a row. So it was audio and video.

HULLFISH: That is a brilliant idea.

We talked about music. The licensed stuff is fantastic. Where are those choices coming from?

BECK: Our composer Tom Caffey was really great and got really dialed in after working on the project for a couple months.

PHOENIX – JUNE 20: NBA Commissioner David Stern presents Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls the championship trophy after the Bulls defeated the Phoenix Suns in Game Six of the 1993 NBA Finals on June 20, 1993 at America West Arena in Phoenix, Arizona. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 1993 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

The vision for the music was all Jason. Especially the hip hop songs, those hip hop montages. That was stuff that he felt really strongly about and would come up with those songs and would come into the edit room and ask, “What do you think of this?” “What if we use this?” “What if we use that?” And often he’d cut the first version of those montages for us to then go tweak.

It was a combination of the composer providing us with this great score — score that had different variations — different stems that we could use and different themes that we could bring back. Sometimes you’ll hear something that you hadn’t heard before with a cello. The percussion was really important to Jason. And I think it really does have an impact with all this action to have this really cool percussion.

HULLFISH: What were you temping with? Where was the temp coming from?

BECK: I was working on episode two largely and I had cut a lot of that episode with temp score from previous projects I’d worked on, but pretty quickly Jason didn’t want to use any temp score, so we using Caffey stuff pretty quickly in the edit.

Even before the first rough cut of episode 2 went out, I had to replace it all with Caffey stuff.

CONCANNON: Yeah, I was using temp score for my first few weeks, but quickly he wanted to be all Caffey.

HULLFISH: The score was fantastic. Very cinematic.

CONCANNON: Some of the temp was Caffey’s previous score from other films with Jason.

BECK: They already had a rapport and like they knew what each other would want going into it.

HULLFISH: Another transition that I loved was between Dennis’s story and the trip to Montana to do Phil’s backstory.

INGLEWOOD, CA- JUNE 9: Michael Jordan #23 of the Chicago Bulls stands for the National Anthem during Game Four of the 1991 NBA Finals on June 9, 1991 at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 1991 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

CONCANNON: It was part of Jason’s vision from the beginning that Dennis and Phil had a special bond and that was supported by their interviews.

Phil tells the story about how they bonded over a shared love of Native American culture. And Phil tells him he’s the Heyoka (a term that means “sacred fool.”) When we were in the earlier part of this we were entertaining the idea of naming each episode. We were going to name episode three “Heyoka,” but Dennis and Phil so naturally have a great relationship because part of what made both of them so great is Phil’s ability to reach Dennis and bond with Dennis and tame him. A lot of people didn’t think that could happen.

So their two stories are inextricably linked. It made for a lot of great moments. Rick Telander is describing Phil Jackson as a player on the Knicks and he said, “In a lot of ways he was like a young Dennis Rodman.” Those things kind of kept coming up and it was — in a lot of ways — a gift editorially that we got to work with it because it was almost too easy to talk about them both together.

HULLFISH: Before things were organized into episodes did you just work in scenes.

BECK: A lot of it was unscripted so a lot of it was just us churning through interview footage and beginning to put stuff together. Obviously the interviews are driven by Jason’s ideas of what to ask and what to go after, but those become apparent when you’re editing and you organically start putting the story together based on what you have and what’s most emotional and what fits together best.

So for the Scottie episode, I basically was just given free rein to work on that when I first started and it ended up being a lot of what Jason intended. A lot of it’s just us going through and trying to find — organically out of the footage — what the story is.

CONCANNON: Before I started, the producers and Jason had sort of laid out a very rough vision of what stories could fit into certain episodes. So we at least knew that those were the story points that are out there, and a lot of times the editors would work with the producers and directors and rearrange those cards and say, “Hey, there’s a link between this and this.”

But they had conceived of a lot of what some of the individual scenes would be before I started.

HULLFISH: How were you determining workload on a 10 part series with four editors? How do you even know what to do when you walk into work?

SOZANSKI: You don’t always. (everyone laughs).

HULLFISH: Does a producer come to you and tell you? Do you pick scenes off a card on a wall and say, “I’m doing the Dennis Rodman going to Vegas story?”

BECK: I think it’s the latter. When I came on I just wanted to work on episode 2. There had been work done on episode 1 by Jason and a previous editor. That wasn’t the thing to tackle. The thing to tackle and the thing to get across the finish line was to take a fresh episode and go. So when I first came on I just did that for a few months. I just worked on 2.

Then Devin, when you came on, it naturally fell to you to be working on a combination of 1 and 3 and then you helped with two at some point right.

CONCANNON: Yeah. In my first few weeks I actually had to cut together some scenes they were showing at the All-Star Game for a sort of promotional thing. But after that I ended up taking over episode one for a while.

Abhay, when you came on did you start on episode 3 or 4?

CHICAGO – MAY 17: Dennis Rodman #91 of the Chicago Bulls shoots a layup during a game played on May 17, 1998 at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 1998 NBAE (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

SOFSKY: I started on the Rodman stuff when I first came in but I think as the project went on, it was dictated by what we were sending to ESPN and Michael Jordan’s people and Netflix — what they wanted to see. So we had to finish episode 3 — all-hands-on-deck.

At some point we were only working on whatever people needed to see.

HULLFISH: Story beats did get moved around it seems. The editors would see a connection to be made and pull a story out of one episode and put it in another. Could you give me an example of that and why it was done?

CONCANNON: The 91 finals was originally part of episode 5. In Episode 4 it was always the intention to wrap up the Detroit Pistons story which is a week before the 91 finals.

Originally part of the vision was that episode 5 is Michael’s ascent in a lot of ways. He’s reaching full global stardom. It has the Olympic Dream Team. The 92 finals is in there.

It’s right before the media starts to chip away at him. The 91 finals were originally conceived as part of that, but I think as a lot of the editors started working on it, we started feeling that we wanted to bring it home in Episode 4.

They get over the Pistons, the Lakers are just the exclamation point on the meat of the story of the Pistons and let’s get into episode 5 already as the champions. So that’s something that changed pretty far down the line. It was part of episode 5 for a long time.

HULLFISH: Once something that big gets pulled out of somebody else’s episode what do you use to fill in that gap? Or are you still trying to cut time anyway?

BECK: A lot of times this was motivated by time. Definitely it felt better to move the 91 finals back into 4, but it also solved other problems because we’re trying to balance all these episodes to 50 minutes, and that really helped dictate what moved.

PHOENIX – JUNE 20: Michael Jordan #23 of the Chicago Bulls celebrates winning the NBA Championship after Game Six of the 1993 NBA Finals on June 20, 1993 at th America West Arena in Phoenix, Arizona. The Bulls won 99-98. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 1993 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

CONCANNON: I think that was a great case of like solving two problems at the same time because 5 was really heavy. I think the first cut of 5 was like 63 minutes or 68 minutes or something just ridiculous and we had to be at 49. So that pushed us. We’d been talking about moving the 91 finals. This can solve a lot of problems. Let’s get it over there and that will immediately get 5-7 minutes out of episode 5.

SOZANSKI: There was also a balancing act going on between the 98 season and the history. That was a pretty thought-out process of how much of each there would be, and when you would be bouncing back from one to another, so I think there was also — not just internally, episode-wise — time issues, but also how much we are in the history and how much we are in the present — the present being 98.

We considered 1998 to be present tense in the series. So it was a question of how much of each of those that you would have a share of.

HULLFISH: There was some use of photos early in the series that was done absolutely without motion. Was the thought behind that that all the motion of the video clips was there and the photos should just play more straight?

BECK: I can speak for myself — I like a really, really subtle drift on photos. Nothing dramatic. There were times when Jake Rogal and I would do passes on episodes together and he hated moves on photos and his preference influenced me a little bit.

The most I ever put on a photo was a really subtle, subtle drift.

SOFSKY: I did the first pass of episode 6. I had zero photos in there because we had so much access to great archival video. Anytime I needed anything it existed somewhere and there was plenty of it.

At some point I think the producers and you guys said, “We do have photos you can use.” There’s some great stuff. So there’s a couple of moments in there that I used photos instead of video and it made such a difference. It gives you a breath from the onslaught of archival video. There was one photo in particular that Nina had found where it’s Michael Jordan covered by media. He doesn’t have an inch. It’s just him completely covered.

I think with that photo there was no move on it. Let’s just sit with that photo for a certain amount of time because it was so powerful. It certainly was a nice place to be in though, in that you had so much material that you didn’t need photos. You could use whatever you want. It was a luxury.

CONCANNON: There’s great use of photos in the bad boy section timed to the music. One thing we talked about when we were putting that stuff together is that we wanted it to feel almost like a horror movie. We wanted to feel like you should be scared of these people. Just resting with the music and seeing these photos of Michael or somebody getting knocked to the side by Laimbeer. It was as powerful or more powerful than the video.

BECK: One thing was — the photos in that section also allowed us to go deeper into the story, because the first part of the story is basically about the Bulls losing to the Pistons and the second part of the story that Devin is referring to is really about after you’ve established the Jordan rules.

If we didn’t have those photos, it would have felt sort of the same. There would’ve been a sameness to using the game archival, so a lot of times it gave us a second lease. It gave us the ability to delve even deeper without feeling repetitive.

HULLFISH: I love that idea. Another great moment was all of Jordan’s accolades and awards one season and it launches into Prince from the Batman soundtrack: “All hail the new king in town!” Was that another music cue from the director?

CONCANNON: Yeah. I think that was Jason’s call. Also those big music moments were Jason’s vision.

HULLFISH: It had to have been a blast cutting some of those music montages.

BECK: Yeah it was. It was awesome. There were times where we couldn’t clear them and then that was frustrating. He really considered the era. It was important to him that it was Eric B. and Rakim for a certain section or if it was Prince for another section. It was really deliberate in terms of those songs being a touchstone for that era that Jordan was playing in.

SOZANSKI: We cleared a lot more than I thought we would. I figured we’d be replacing almost all of them just from a cost standpoint. So it was pretty impressive.

CONCANNON: We had a scare. There was a moment where we thought we were not going to get any licensed music in the show. It was some weird contractual thing with ESPN. Eventually they realized this was one of their biggest assets and they went all-in on it.

BECK: They came through for us for sure. It’s amazing that some of those cues got cleared.

Screenshot of the Avid timeline for Episode 9 of “The Last Dance.” See the full quality by right-clicking on the image and opening in a new browser window and zooming in. (5108×2284)

HULLFISH: There were some incredible music cues. What was some of the logic for when things happened in the overall storyline?

CONCANNON: The plan was always for Scottie to be the second episode because he is the number two. We were very lucky honestly that he did have an injury at the beginning of the season because it allowed us to focus on why that’s important and we’re living in the present of the 98 season. So right off the bat — the beginning of the season — and you’re missing your second-best guy.

Okay. Well, why is that important that you’re missing your second-best guy? Let’s see what they’re missing. Let’s go back and hear his entire story. Let’s see how great this guy is.

By the time we rejoin the present, it sets us up perfectly for: If Scottie is gonna be out for this long, who’s gonna step up? And Dennis Rodman does for Episode 3. So that, in a lot of ways, was a gift that that’s when his injury happened because we were able to jump right into it and both move the story of the season forward and move the story of the history of the Bulls forward.

BECK: And then Scottie coming back in episode 3 allowed us to kind of have this moment of craziness with Rodman where he just kind of goes off the deep end. He’s lost his connection to Jordan, he’s lost a father figure or somebody who was keeping him kind of secured.

HULLFISH: One thing I love to talk about — or provoke discussion about — is why you have a rule and why you break that rule. One rule that’s common is not to “see and say.” But there are several wonderful instances of that rule being broken in this series.

One example that I can think about is talking about Rodman being such a student of the game and using this great — I think it’s a photo — of him in the locker room watching an old TV set with some game footage and he’s got a notepad in his lap. So, when do you show what you’re describing and when do you go for something that’s more metaphorical or juxtaposed?

Director Jason Hehir interviews Phil Jackson for “The Last Dance”

BECK: That shot you’re referring to actually was video. Sometimes, with the 500 hours, it sort of transcends that “Say cow, see cow” rule — whatever you want to call it. Sometimes it just totally transcends and you can feel it. You can feel that you’re getting away with it and that it’s not like this sort of lame redundancy that we see far too often in movies.

We had the instinct to not do that as much as possible, but there were moments where you just get away with it. It’s so cool to see Rodman watching a TV and studying other players.

SOFSKY: I’m actually learning this role for the first time, so I’m taking notes over here. I actually should think of that more often. I think Chad’s right that a lot of times it’s just instincts of trying it out and seeing if it feels right. And if it’s a rule, then who cares if it’s working nicely?

HULLFISH: “See cow, say cow.” I’ve never heard that before. I might have to steal that.

BECK: I stole that from Alex Gibney. (Gibney is a respected documentary director.)

HULLFISH: That’s a good guy to steal that from. I think I interviewed his editor on Staying Clear on a previous Art of the Cut.

You guys ended Episode 4 with a sound bite: Is this the end of the Bulls? How often did you guys try to do a cliffhanger like that?

CONCANNON: I think that’s the end of the Utah regular-season game where they lost after like dropping a 24 point lead.

I was cutting that game. I was watching the broadcast just kind of looking for moments — trying to tell the story of this game and when I heard that line I knew, “OK, this has to end this scene.”

I found that great shot where Michael disappointingly walks off the court. The camera sort of flames out. So I had cut it just as the end of the scene to hear it that way, and after probably a couple of weeks of moving that scene around I think we finally had the idea that this was a great way to end an episode. And of course — being the Jazz — it’s in a lot of ways a teaser of what’s to come. So it was solving a bunch of problems.

Scottie Pippen interviewed by director Jason Hehir for “The Last Dance”

It was a great out for an episode. It was a great cliffhanger. it brings us back to the president brings us back to the 98 season and pushes that forward. Everyone knows that the Jazz will be their foe in the finals. And in a lot of ways it’s the thesis of the series: “Is this going to be the end of the Bulls as we know it?” It was almost too perfect.

HULLFISH: Let’s talk about jump cuts. Was it something that you thought was OK because it’s a documentary? Or you used them because of the energy they brought? What was the thought process you used going into a jump cut section?

CONCANNON: I think one of the great ones in that episode was something Abhay cut originally, which was Dennis talking about the rebounds. That’s an example where the jump cuts worked so well because Dennis really was kind of rambling and in a lot of ways he was making sense, but when Abhay cut it together in that way, it got his personality across but you also got a glimpse to reveal that this guy really is thinking about rebounds differently than everybody else, and clearly we should listen to what he’s saying.

But it was a good way to enjoy the humor of it but sort of get that message across in a really quick way.

SOZANSKI: It’s similar to the rule-breaking question. You know when you break the rule but it works. For that moment, anybody who saw that was like Yeah, it’s jump cut. It’s great. You would never say no to that.

SOFSKY: I had put it in a string-out of selects of bites that I thought were good or that would work, and then watched it down and thought, “Oh, just leave it like this. Don’t mess with it.” Maybe tighten it up a little bit, but it wasn’t some genius idea where I thought, “This should work perfectly as jump cuts!”

It just happened organically.

HULLFISH: Abhay, you need to take away more credit!

BECK: Abhay’s selects reels are like super fine cuts.

HULLFISH: So there were multiple editors and multiple episodes. How were you organizing material so that you could collaborate? Was everybody doing selects reels for example?

Avid project-window screenshot for "The Last Dance"
Avid project window screenshot for “The Last Dance” showing the folder organization within the project and the bins in the folders.

BECK: I would break down the interviews — We have ScriptSync, so we can go through interviews, but I’d also go through and when there was something that somebody said that’s really good, I’d bump it up to track two. So I’ll duplicate the interview sequence and if there’s something REALLY good that somebody says, I’ll bump it up to track three, and that way I have a visual of the interview sequence and I’ll also drop cards in that say, “This is a great handoff to the Pistons” or “This is a great handoff to that John Salley line” or whatever.

So I did that with like a lot of the interviews. I would refer to them anytime I had to cut a scene that involved that character. That was like my specific method that I usually do.

CONCANNON: I would do it a little bit more by scene. I would use ScriptSync and decide, “OK, I need everybody that’s gonna talk about this one thing.” I’d search for a few key phrases about that and gather a selects reel that is specific to that topic.

A lot of times I would organize it by category within the sequence, just using markers. And then once I knew all of the total available lights that were at my disposal and I watched the games and I would do a similar thing with the games too. I would make selects reels of what the announcers were saying and selects reels of the video.

Now I know all the pieces I have and it’s kind of just putting a puzzle together from there and checker-boarding those two narrative options and telling a story the best and fastest way possible.

SOFSKY: I found myself going through the archival before I did the interviews. I would try to tell the story with the archival, or if it was a game or basketball series I would try to pull every select and tell the story with the archival footage and the game footage and the announcers and then go back to the interviews and figure out, “How can I fill in some blanks?” How can I make some of this stuff play better?

It seems like we all had our own different way of doing things even within our own folders, everyone’s folder looked completely different. We all just did our own thing within this big structure. But it all worked. We never had a hard time working together, handing stuff off.

SOZANSKI: I will say I’m totally disorganized. Abhay gives me a hard time because my sequences are called, “Sequencecopy.01.02”.

SOFSKY: Yeah. I’ve worked with Ben a couple of times and I always make fun of his sequences. He said that, but it’s really more like “Sequence01.copy.01.copy01.copy03.sequence01”.

SOZANSKI: I tell myself that I know where everything is, but I don’t know.

CONCANNON: And Abhay uses 48 audio tracks.

BECK: We have to have a reckoning about that.

SOFSKY: I don’t like to delete things off my sequence. I like to keep clips unmuted. But these guys are all yelling at me because my sequences are too busy, so….

HULLFISH: Audio only or video for muting?

SOFSKY: If I’m looking for Dennis Rodman rebounds, I like to stack them all on top of each other and leave them in the sequence in case I want to change something later on — I won’t have to hunt for it.

I know that there’s this pile of muted clips that are our options.

CONCANNON: I do the same thing.

SOZANSKI: Yeah, I do that too. Then on top of that — for some reason — I do not like to delete audio tracks and these guys were not having it.

BECK: I used Final Cut Pro for like eight years before I used Avid. Final Cut had that like forever — the clip enable disable thing.

HULLFISH: Tell me about your NLE history. What have each of you cut with?

BECK: Avid and Final Cut for me.

CONCANNON: Avid. Premiere. And Final Cut. Actually I think the first documentary I ever cut when I was 13 years old was on a program called Cinestream, which definitely is not in existence anymore — for the past few decades.

HULLFISH: 13 years old cutting a documentary! That’s impressive!

CONCANNON: It was for a school project. A thing called National History Day that made us do.

SOZANSKI: He’s the Michael Jordan of editing.

BECK: I can attest to that.

HULLFISH: Ben what about you?

SOZANSKI: I did Final Cut and Avid for a while. I did Premiere on one project, but I struggled with it, but I think it was circumstance more than the program. Every day was a tangle of trying to re-link stuff, so I haven’t used it since.

I think I’m probably going to have to use it again at some point, but my preference is to use Avid.

SOFSKY: I wish I could still cut on Final Cut 7. I loved it. But the first time I used ScriptSync on Avid, I thought, “This is so incredible!”

Especially for documentaries when you’re cutting this Frankenbiting. I don’t think I’ll ever cut on anything else that doesn’t have ScriptSync just because it’s so it saves so much time. It was so nice to chat with you guys. I love this series. Great great work.

BECK: Thank you.


SOZANSKI: This was super fun.

Art of the Cut book cover
Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors

To read more interviews in the Art of the Cut series, check out THIS LINK and follow me on Twitter @stevehullfish or on IMDb.

The first 50 interviews in the series provided the material for the book, “Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors.” This is a unique book that breaks down interviews with many of the world’s best editors and organizes it into a virtual roundtable discussion centering on the topics editors care about. It is a powerful tool for experienced and aspiring editors alike. Cinemontage and CinemaEditor magazine both gave it rave reviews. No other book provides the breadth of opinion and experience. Combined, the editors featured in the book have edited for over 1,000 years on many of the most iconic, critically acclaimed and biggest box office hits in the history of cinema.

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